As young children transition from consuming liquids to solids, how much guidance should parents be giving them?
What you need to know about the messy art of baby-led weaning
The weaning process – the transition from feeding a baby just milk to also introducing solids – is one that many parents approach with excitement and trepidation in equal measure, as thoughts turn to first tastes, offering a balanced diet, and establishing a positive attitude towards food and eating.
Traditionally, this would see the parent taking control and spoon-feeding the baby smooth, single-ingredient purees, before moving on to chunkier mixed blends. Increasingly, though, many are favouring an undeniably messier, but ultimately far more interactive approach known as baby-led weaning (BLW).
Rather than having purees passively spooned into their mouths, BLW babies are encouraged to feed themselves. Parents can select from a range of nutritious foods – usually vegetables to start with – which are presented in strip or stick form, having been cooked until they are easy to munch, but firm enough for little hands to grasp without squashing. As the child and parent’s confidence grows, different flavours, textures and shapes are gradually introduced, until the baby is enjoying a salt-free version of the family meal.
The benefits of BLW
“With baby-led weaning there are no specially made purees, no spoon- feeding and no persuasion or pressure to eat,” explains Gill Rapley, who trained as a midwife and is widely regarded as pioneering this approach to weaning. Rapley says that a combination of her personal experience weaning her own children and witnessing families struggling with fraught meal times, prompted her to consider that there must be an easier and potentially better way to tackle the situation.
Rapley reasons that just as we put our trust in babies to roll, crawl and walk when they are ready – and to initiate these milestones by themselves – the same can be said for eating. As long as they provide a variety of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, parents need not interfere beyond that, and can allow their baby’s natural instinct to survive and thrive to take over. Not only does this ease the stress that parents often place upon themselves surrounding weaning (worrying that the baby is not eating enough, trying to coerce them into eating more and spending a considerable amount of time preparing purees), but it also creates a sense of inclusivity and positivity around mealtime.
Most importantly of all, though, Rapley explains that there are considerable benefits for the infants. “Baby-led weaning is more enjoyable for babies than being spoon-fed and enables them to move on to solid food gradually, in their own time. It also allows them to exercise their natural appetite control, so they eat only what they need, and it encourages the development of chewing, fine movements, hand-eye co-ordination and social skills. There is also research to suggest that it helps them make healthier food choices as older children.”
'BLW babies become adept quite quickly'
Jordana Smith, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist in Dubai, seconds Rapley’s thoughts, adding that BLW helps babies learn what to do with their mouths. “We are born knowing how to suck, but need to be taught what to do with our mouths, by which I mean chewing and swallowing. Purees don’t teach this, whereas baby-led weaning does,” she says.
For those interested in finding out more, Smith runs regular weaning and feeding workshops in association with pre- and postnatal specialists Malaak Mama & Baby Care. The sessions cover how to recognise the signs of readiness for weaning, selecting and cooking the right food, introducing BLW, teaching healthy eating habits, as well as how to deal with fussy young eaters. As well as advocating the approach from a professional perspective, Smith has a young daughter of her own whose eating habits have flourished with this approach, she says.
Tracey Murkett is another BLW expert who, along with Rapley, has co-authored two successful books on the subject: Baby-led Weaning: Helping your baby to love good food and The Baby-led Weaning Quick & Easy Recipe Book. Murkett says the most common concern she encounters with parents considering BLW is choking. While this is an entirely valid worry, Murkett highlights that, according to research, choking on food is no more likely with BLW than with conventional weaning.
What is essential is that parents or caregivers are vigilant and know to deal with a choking situation. “Risk factors for choking – at any age – include lying back, being distracted [for example, by games or the TV, or by being hurried], and having someone else put food into your mouth. Babies need to be sitting upright to feed themselves, and they should always be allowed to concentrate and take their time,” she explains.
There is, Murkett warns, just one additional factor to note about BLW, and that is the resulting mess, as food is squashed, spread, dropped and sometimes flung from high chair to floor. She is quick to add that this shouldn’t put you off and will in fact pay dividends in the long-term. “This is a learning process that is hugely important – both in terms of gaining confidence with food, and in relation to the development of hand-eye co-ordination and dexterity. In turn, BLW babies become adept quite quickly; as toddlers, they are often less messy and more skilled with cutlery than their spoon-fed counterparts.”
Expert advice from author Tracey Murkett
- Include your baby in mealtimes and they will show you when they are ready to begin weaning by reaching out, grabbing some food from your plate and taking it to their mouths. They won’t be able to do that until they can maintain an upright posture while moving their heads and arms, which happens for most babies at around six months. All babies should be sitting upright to eat and never left alone when doing so.
- Once they start handling food, don’t expect your baby to start eating straight away. Baby-led weaning babies familiarise themselves with food first by tasting and playing with it for a few weeks (at least), before they begin to eat it purposefully.
- Offer your little one a wide range of foods from the outset, so that they can experience a variety of tastes and textures, and select those that contain any nutrients they need. Tiny amounts of micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, are usually needed first, so the foods they are most likely to choose will be meat, fish and eggs, along with vegetables and fruits. Cereals or dairy foods such as cheese, pasta and yoghurt can be thrown into the mix to offer some variety, but these are less important than foods containing zinc and iron, to start with.
- Most family food can be adapted in the early weeks of BLW so that your child can hold pieces easily. Babies of six months uses their whole fist to grasp things and cannot open their hands voluntarily to get at something inside it. Small pieces of food will therefore be difficult and frustrating for them. Instead, foods need to be cut into shapes and sizes that they can grasp easily with one hand, with a bit sticking out beyond their fist for them to munch. Some foods have a ready-made “handle” – broccoli, for example. Others should be cut into sticks or strips, about 5cm long and no wider than the baby’s fist.
- Shellfish, shark and marlin should all be avoided, as well as honey (until baby is a year old), and items that contain added salt, sugar and additives – read labels carefully – many items, such as baked beans, pies, sauces, fast foods and ready meals contain a lot of salt and additives.
- Foods that are a choking risk will need to be adapted or avoided. Don’t offer nuts (whole or in pieces) and cut smaller fruits such as olives and cherries in half and remove any stones. Some raw fruits and vegetables may need to be checked for softness before offering (sticks or slices of very hard apple can sometimes break into chunks when bitten). Small bones and gristle should be completely removed from meat before offering it to your baby.
- Parents will need to explain how BLW works to anyone caring for their baby and ensure that no one except the child puts food into their mouth – watch out for helpful toddlers.